March is at the very beginning of the action for snook on the Florida peninsula. Now's the time to see how the angling for these fish looks for the coming year.
By Carolee Boyles
Fishing for snook isn't like other kinds of fishing. Toss out a live shrimp on a hook and you may catch almost anything - even a snook. But to specifically target snook takes finesse and patience. It also takes some understanding of the life history and habits of the fish, which just aren't like other species.
THE FISH The first thing to know about snook in Florida is that not all snook are the same. There actually are four different inshore species here.
Fat snook (Centropomus parallelus) is a medium-sized species usually found in mangrove habitats. These fish rarely reach more than 20 inches in length.
Swordspine snook (Centropomus ensiferus) is a small estuarine species found on the east coast as far north as the St. Lucie River. Adults weigh about a pound.
Tarpon snook (Centropomus pectinatus) is another small species found in south Florida and sometimes in fresh water. Adults usually weigh less than a pound and are less than 12 inches long. This fish is rare on the west coast of Florida.
Common snook (Centropomus undecimalis) is the largest of the four snook, reaching weights upwards of 40 pounds. It is found from central Florida south to the Upper Keys in both coastal and brackish waters. This species is found in the most abundance in the state, but it's also designated a Species of Special Concern. The common snook is what we all fish for, and the fish ordinarily referred to when talking about snook.
Photo by Bob Stearns
YESTERDAY AND TODAY According to Dr. Ron Taylor, a fisheries biologist at the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg and arguably the world's top snook expert, there are two different populations of common snook in Florida. Those are the Atlantic and the Gulf populations. Since the two groups have some significant differences, biologists treat them differently in terms of both management and fishing regulations.
"The population on the east coast has more variability in its genome than does the west coast population," Taylor said. "The east coast doesn't have the continental river system that the west coast has. Common snook are estuarine-dependent, and when they don't have that freshwater/saltwater mix they move to look for it. So a fish that's in Jupiter Inlet, where there's hardly any fresh water, is going to go to Sebastian, or up in the Loxahatchee River, or where the Cross Florida Barge Canal comes in - anywhere there's a freshwater river. Or it's going to move down to Fort Pierce, where the canals come out of the Okeechobee."
On the west coast, however, where each river has an associated estuary, snook don't move nearly as much. That's because they don't have to.
"I've put more than 35,000 tags in snook in Tampa Bay, and not one of them has left the bay," Taylor noted.
What this means is that the fish on the east coast move a lot, spreading their genetic material around as they go. As a result, east coast fish grow faster and mature at a younger age than their west coast cousins. They also exhibit greater fecundity - which means simply that they make more baby snook - than west coast fish.
Where do the two populations diverge? That's a good question.
"We have the boundary at Jewfish Creek, which is just inside Monroe County," Taylor pointed out. "Any fish that's north or east of Jewfish Creek belongs to the Atlantic population. If you're south or west of Jewfish Creek, you're in the Gulf group."
However, Taylor added, that's an arbitrary geographic boundary, and part of his current research is to find out where the genetic boundary really is.
"I suspect it's around on the other side of the Keys," he said, "somewhere around Florida Bay, Collier-Seminole, somewhere in there. But I don't know that; I just suspect it."
During the late 1970s and the 1980s, snook numbers were depressed on both coasts.
"Then during the late 1980s to about 1997, we experienced periods when we had high numbers in both populations," Taylor continued. "But after 1997, because harvest caught up with reproduction, we were in a state of decline."
On the Atlantic side of the state, during the years from 1987 to 1989, biologists estimated that there were about 300,000 fish in the population. The next few years were good ones for snook. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the population increased to about 700,000. However, starting in the late 1990s, the population started dropping off again. Today it's around 540,000 fish.
The picture on the Gulf side of the state is somewhat different. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, biologists estimated that the population of snook was somewhere between 380,000 and 670,000. Sometime about 1994 the population leveled off at about 550,000, and it stayed there until 1999 or so. Then it went up again. Biologists estimate that the Gulf snook population in 2000 was about 900,000 fish, the highest it's ever been on the Gulf Coast. It has remained at about that level.
"We think that we've curtailed the decline in both populations," Taylor offered. "We're at a point now that the stocks have stabilized and come into equilibrium. We hope that they'll now turn to an upward trend and that the numbers will increase."
So it sounds like the outlook for snook fishing ought to be pretty good? Yes and no.
If the snook themselves were the only thing you had to take into consideration, then at least the Gulf Coast, and probably the Atlantic fishery, would be pretty healthy. But you also have to look at the number of anglers going specifically for snook - particularly since casual, catch-anything-that's-biting anglers do not usually catch them - and the amount of mortality those anglers cause the fish.
For instance, on the Atlantic side of the state, surveys suggest anglers made about 13,000 fishing trips for snook during 1983. That number has risen dramatically over the years, up to about 639,000 trips in the year 2000.
On the Gulf side, the increase has been even more dramatic. In the early 1980s, anglers went out to fish for snook about 25,000 times a year. But by 2000, the number was up to 1.2 million!
On both coasts, mortality rates d
uring those periods were much too high for the populations to sustain that kind of pressure. Fortunately, they did not have to. The imposition of a 26-inch-to-34-inch slot limit, a statewide season closure from Dec. 15 to Jan. 31 and during the months of June, July and August, and a statewide two-fish bag limit reduced pressure on both the Atlantic and the Gulf stocks.
The minimum size of 26 inches came about because of a peculiarity of the snook's growth and reproduction. They're hermaphroditic, which means that each fish switches gender at some point in its life.
"They all hatch out of the egg as males," Taylor explained. "The only way to arrive at a female condition is to go through the reproductive stage of a male. In other words, females are derived from reproductive males. So, we're trying to control the sex ratio of the population. Twenty-six inches, which is the minimum size you can keep, is the most conservative size at which 50 percent of the population is males and 50 percent is females on the Gulf coast. On the Atlantic coast it's 28 inches, but we have to take the most conservative approach, or we'd have two sets of regulations, and that would drive anglers insane."
Today, regulations are even more stringent. The slot limit is still in effect, and the season is still closed from Dec. 15 to Jan. 31 statewide. On the Atlantic coast, the season remains closed during June, July and August. On the Gulf side, as well as in Monroe County and Everglades National Park, the snook season is closed during May, June, July and August. Although anglers on the Atlantic side still can keep two fish per day, those on the Gulf Coast can keep only one.
"All of this should additionally reduce fishing mortality," Taylor continued. "The reason the month of May is important is that snook spawn during the summer. Snook aggregate in the summer in giant schools, oftentimes with 3,000 to 5,000 fish per school. When they do that, they're highly susceptible to anglers because they feed voraciously. Seventy percent of the snook that are caught are caught in the summer in these large schools."
Will current regulations be enough to keep snook stocks healthy? Only time will tell.
"With a thousand people a day moving to Florida, 50 percent of them moving to the Gulf Coast, and practically all of them buying a fishing license, we have to be mindful of the rate of exploitation," Taylor said. "Even though we think that we've reduced it to some acceptable level, who knows what the angling public will do to it?"
One thing that has become a big point of discussion is whether or not to close the fishery completely during the summer months, rather than just have the catch-and-release rules in effect now.
"There's a paper that's just come out that shows that catching and releasing a snook during the spawning season, when it's in reproductive condition, does not alter the reproductive potential of the fish," Taylor pointed out. "We now have more than 400 data points, where we caught snook, tagged them and released them back into the environment. Then we re-caught them anywhere from two to 12 days later, sacrificed them and looked at the ovaries, and we can tell whether they're spawning or have spawned in the recent past. In every case, they have indeed spawned within the last several days. That data shows that it doesn't harm them to catch and release them during the spawning season."
FINDING SNOOK IN THE SPRING To know how to successfully locate snook in March and April, it helps to understand how they move when the weather starts to warm up.
"There's a seasonal component to the migration," Taylor said. "Generally it's inshore to offshore."
On the Gulf coast, about the middle of April, as the weather warms and the snook start to get into reproductive condition, the fish move into the passes to spawn, where they have high-salinity water and a current.
"They need high-salinity water for the eggs to float and the sperm to activate," Taylor noted. "And all the research we've ever done tells us that there has to be a current. Snook spawn in the late afternoon, and 90 percent of the time in the summer the incoming tide is in the evening. That brings the fertilized eggs - which will be larvae within hours - into the protected portions of the bays.
Then about the middle of September, snook move into the backwaters of the bays into their winter habitat. Here, when the fish are lethargic in the cool water of winter, they are safe from oceanic predators and they have a food source of many smaller fish. During days of bright sun and warmer temperatures, they may move out onto the flats, but when the next front comes through they return to the backwaters.
On the Atlantic side of the state, the movement of snook is much broader. According to Taylor, many fish spend the winter in the deep waters of the Port Canaveral area, and others stay in the Loxahatchee River, or other deep inland water where they are protected.
All of which points out that where you find snook in March and April depends a lot on the weather and the water temperature.
"During that time, we're in a period of transition," Taylor offered. "That's when they go from their winter habitat to their summer habitat. So it's the worst time to predict where they are."
However if you are going to look for snook in March and early April on the west coast, Taylor suggested beginning at the mouth of the Little Manatee River.
"I'd begin there early in the morning, when the sun first hits the water," he advised. "I'd fish with a live bait, and if I hadn't caught anything by 10 o'clock I'd move farther down south toward Port Manatee. I'd just keep moving south until I ran into them. Because I'd know by that point the water had warmed up to about 68 to 70 degrees, and they'd have left the river. They're not in their winter habitat - they're in between - so I'd have to find them."
On the east coast, Capt. Ron Bielefeld guides for snook out of Sebastian. He said that in late February and early March, the water in the Sebastian area is still cold, so he fishes up in the Sebastian River during that period.
"The water temperature there tends to stay warmer, and there are deeper areas where the fish will migrate to when the water near the surface gets cold," he noted. "In that area I spend a lot of time fishing the shoreline, docks and deeper holes."
If he does go out into the Indian River for snook, he fishes near the inlet.
"If it's been a cold winter and the water temperature is still down in the 60-degree range, the fish will either be in the inlet or moving out into deeper pockets of water, trying to stay in a water temperature that they prefer," Bielefeld stated. "I'll also be looking in deeper water in canals. We have a lot of canals cut back into housing developments, and a lot of times snook will be along docks in the deeper canals. They'll be in places where they can move up in the water column du
ring the day if it's sunny, and where they can sink down into deeper water during the night.
"But if it's been a warm winter and the water temperatures haven't really dipped below 70 degrees, then I'll be fishing mangrove shorelines, docks and other structure," he continued. "Snook don't tend to venture too much onto the flats during the day anymore because of the amount of disturbance. You only find them on the flats at night or very early in the morning."
By the time April rolls around, the water usually is starting to warm up.
"Then, I start fishing mangrove shorelines, docks and moored boats. That's my favorite. The snook can get right under a moored boat and feed on baitfish that come by. As water temperatures creep back up and the fish get more active, I start fishing more out from the shoreline," Bielefeld concluded.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION To book a day of guided snook fishing in the Sebastian area, contact Capt. Ron Bielefeld by telephone at (772) 388-9880.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Florida Game & Fish